Weight Loss & The Cheat Meal: It’s All About Mileage

There is not much more in dieting and weight loss that is more controversial than The Cheat Meal.  There are advocates who swear a Cheat Meal keeps you from going off the rails (and eating a whole cheesecake) and then there are detractors who swear that it creates cravings and leads to you eating the whole cheesecake you were trying to avoid! Depending on who or what you Google, you can find flood of “research” on both sides.  So, The Cheat Meal: yes or no?  My answer? “Eventually.”

I like to compare a Cheat Meal to taking a long road trip. Obviously when you are learning to drive or just gotten your license, are you going to take a long car trip?  Those of you with teen drivers, take a good look at them: are you going to let them drive a hundred miles by themselves with that brand new license in their pocket?  Of course not! They don’t have the experience! They might think that they do, but you and I both know that there are a lot of situations out there that they’ve never encountered. Once they’ve been around the block a few thousand times and maybe driven some distances with an adult, then they can set out on their own, when everyone is a little more confident in their ability to handle a car a long way from home on their own.

The Cheat Meal is the metaphorical Road Trip of your weight loss experience.  You remember the first time you had to back out of parking space into traffic? Just a little bit hairy! Remember the first time you got lost in a strange town? (Even scarier before Google Maps!) Or how about the first time your car died on the highway on the way to somewhere else? (“How can I call AAA when I don’t even know where I am?”) The first time these things happen to you, it’s scary and confusing and, let’s face it, you are more likely to make a mistake.  The same thing happens when you try indulging in a Cheat Meal too soon!

When you have been following your weight loss plan for some time, you develop consistency.  We all know that’s the cornerstone of weight loss: if you eat better 95% of the time, then you are going to be healthier simply because you aren’t eating a lot of unhealthy food. That is pretty much a given: healthy whole foods 95% of the time beat junk food 5% of the time.  The problem is, like our teen drivers, we think we know what we’re doing! We think we are consistent when our consistency is still pretty new. We think a few months is enough time for us to be “consistent.” When we compare it to driving we know that a few months behind the wheel is nothing! I don’t mean that you have be consistently eating healthy for five years before you can have a Cheat Meal, but let’s face it: when you get excited about having a Cheat Meal, that’s probably a clue that you haven’t been consistent long enough!

Most of us get a little apprehensive when we are planning a long road trip but how much of that anxiety is directly related to driving the car? I don’t mean being anxious about things like packing the car or confirming hotel reservations or making sure you brought sunscreen.  Other than plugging the hotel’s address into Google Maps or Garmin, most of us don’t think about the driving other than maybe “I’ve got gas, right?” That’s because at this point in our lives, actually driving a car is not a big deal.  We fuss over the little things like the cord for the iPod or the phone charger for the car, which are not really related to driving the car in traffic on the highway.  If you get anxious about passing someone on the highway or making a U turn at an intersection, maybe you aren’t ready to take that road trip behind the wheel.

It’s the same philosophy about weight loss and Cheat Meals.  When you have been consistent long enough, the actual food is less of an issue.  Usually, a Cheat Meal is connected with some kind of celebration or you’ve made a conscious decision to try something that looks as if it’s worth the calories or carbs. You decide to have a small piece of cake to celebrate someone’s wedding or you’ve never had real Cherries Jubilee, so you decide to take a taste. You aren’t worried that you’ll go back for more or eat too much because the food is about taking part in the celebration/ occasion going on around you and not really about the actual food.  If you get more excited about eating garden variety macaroni & cheese, pizza or birthday cake, then you probably don’t have enough “consistency mileage” to try a Cheat Meal.

At the risk of sounding like a Negative Nancy, when you don’t have enough experience being consistent with your healthy eating, Cheat Meals can lead to some major setbacks.  It really can lead to cravings or too many indulgences.  We get lulled into that false sense of security because we’ve been consistent for so many weeks or months and “we’ve got this!”  Maybe you have and maybe you haven’t, but getting all anxious about what you are going to be eating or afraid of having cravings afterwards are some pretty good signs that you haven’t been consistent long enough to indulge in a Cheat Meal.

Unfortunately, most of us reach this conclusion once we’ve eaten an entire pizza or a bag of Oreos and we feel like we’ve blown our weight loss plan to smithereens! Remember the first time you put a big dent in Mom’s minivan or Dad’s SUV? You and they were probably a bit upset at the time but ultimately, it was all okay. They forgave you because you were a new driver and hey, mistakes happen! That’s why we have insurance and, frankly, the only way to get better at driving a car is to get behind the wheel.  Realizing you don’t have the experience for a Cheat Meal is part of getting better and gaining more experience.  When you’ve dinged your weight loss plan with a Cheat Meal, it’s not the end of the road with your weight loss: it just means you’ve got to go around the block a few more times!